Holistic Management – The often-overlooked framework for regenerative farming
Much promotion and publication has been given to Permaculture and forest gardening in recent years. Forest gardening is of course a very important concept, but we are still experimenting with the practical applications. I have implemented a few forest gardens and an important component is the practicality of harvesting, processing and packaging for market. And also the all-important “floral” and “ground cover” layer. Much of this layer is only managed properly by birds and grazing animals – ie: ducks, chickens, geese, sheep, goats, cows, deer etc.
Forest gardening has been and continues to be successful in tropical locations in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as wet temperate areas like the United Kingdom, east coast United States, sub-tropical Queensland, sub-tropical South Africa and oceanic climates like found in Tasmania, New Zealand and pacific islands. In the 1980s, Robert Hart created the term “forest gardening” after adjusting the principles and also applying them to temperate environments. They have been only partly successful in dry environments.
Holistic Management in Dry Environments
In dry environments that are seasonal grasslands by evolution, forest gardening is not possible in the way shown by Geoff Lawton, Robert Hart, Ben Falk etc (all popular and successful forest garden practitioners). All these examples sit in “wet” areas that remain humid and moist all year round and have a natural tendency to return to forest, without human management. Other areas tend to degrade and return to shrubs, bare ground and eventually dessert. These “brittle” environments need a symbiotic relationship with herding animals, bird life and soil life. These environments make up more than 60% of manageable land on earth.
Within Allan Savory’s work called “Holistic Management” these environments are called “brittle environments” and he has discovered that trees in these environments make up a small part of a healthy ecosystem.
Grasslands are a unique ecology and have co-evolved with ruminants (grazing animals) omnivores (birds like turkeys, ostrich, emu etc) and predators (humans, wolves, lions, dingo’s, cougars). In these ecologies, each of these three types of organisms has vital symbiotic roles to play to insure equilibrium. The ruminants cycle the biomass before it oxides. The omnivores eat the plethora of insects that inevitably breed in the manure and soil. And the predators act like conductors by insuring the ruminant herbivores and omnivores move in harmonious patterns that facilitate the cycle of the biomass.
The Food Web
The first energy caught is in sunlight to grass – the magical process of photosynthesis. We cannot eat grass but ruminants can. If ruminants do not eat the grass it eventually dies and oxidizes at the end of the growing season. One of the ways we try to deal with this is by burning all the biomass that then releases more CO2 and methane. If we can accept that ruminants should be the second step, the first being transforming sunlight to grass then the next step comes when the ruminants defecate. Insects, bacteria and other soil life then feed upon this package of manure. Then things get more complicated but a lot of the insects are consumed by omnivores. Then this soil life also moves around nutrients to help the grass grow. This is very basic but you get the idea hopefully. The food web et al.
Through the concentration of herbivores on grasslands, biomass is also trampled into the ground where it creates a moisture barrier between the sun and soil. Much like mulch protects a garden but on a grand scale. This process also allows for brown material to decay biologically through bacteria and microorganisms as it is now in full contact with the soil rather than being oxidized above the soil surface. The key ingredients are moisture and soil organisms, which don’t have an effect until the animals trample the biomass down to be in full contact with the soil surface.
When an ecosystem has just the right amount of disturbance it often bounces back with more vigorous growth. This is similar to the stress and rest cycles required to exercise muscles in our bodies. Too much exercise actually damages our muscles while just the right amount of stress and rest makes our muscles grow. Timing patterns are extremely important in stress and rest cycles. Ruminant herbivores will eventually eat all the plants and compact the soil if allowed to stay in given places for too long so this is where the predators come in. Predators facilitate or orchestrate the movement of herbivore ruminants in patterns that allow for strong growth, in much the same way as our exercise in sport or the gym needs stress and rest at the right times.
Mono-culture just isn’t an option if we want to restore the eco-system.Image Flickr Kansas Summer Wheat and Storm Panorama Author James Watkins CC 1.0 license
We can all accept that most ground needs some disturbance before it will germinate seeds we place on it. That is why we soften soil in a garden bed. But we also find that a certain degree of disturbance and then compaction is necessary for hard seed plants like grasses to germinate, particularly in brittle (dryland/grassland) environments. This is the role of the herbivores, bunched in herds and periodically moving, grazing animals create just the right amount of disturbance and then compaction for many grass seeds to germinate. Not only that, but they often distribute those seeds far from their original plant in neat little packages of manure and moisture. When properly bunched up in herds and on the move grazing animals insure less bare ground between plants in grassland and more germination and diversity.
The number of animals must be high and they must be moving often for this to have its proper effect. If the animal numbers are low, not herded , and on the move, their behaviour changes and they no longer allow for diversity as they pick off only the most palatable plants. Therefore they don’t have the same disturbance, compaction and rest cycles. This slowly leads to just a few plants, unpalatable to the grazing animal, with an unfair advantage. Also, this is why a mixed species herd or several herds is more beneficial to a landscape than a single species herd. Hence African Savannahs and North America Prairies.
If the surface of the soil has bare patches like in grain fields or if the surface of the soil is tilled like in large-scale agriculture then the carbon is gassed back into the atmosphere where it becomes Co2. This effect is completely absent in Holistic Management.
Cows and Methane
When cows emit emissions (methane) they are only doing what all mammals do through their manure. This is part of the cycle; they should not be condemned for this. Soils under Holistic Management harbour bacteria called methanotrophs, which break down methane and have shown to break down more methane than the cows actually produce. This methane is then incorporated into the soil and contributes to better soil carbon and more abundant soil life, which means more carbon is being pulled out of the atmosphere and into the soil and biomass.
Such bacterial action removes at least 1.5 billion tons of methane from the atmosphere annually and has the potential to remove much more through more use of Holistic Management. This is the equivalent of 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide. These bacteria are almost non existent in soil growing corn, wheat, soy and other grains conventionally. Methane produced by ruminants can remain stable as soil carbon for hundreds, even thousands of years. Put simply, it’s a long-term carbon sink.
“University of Sydney research done on grazing land in the Snowy Mountain region on soils with high organic matter levels of 5-7 per cent, found that these high country soils break down methane at a rate of 100 milligrams per square metre per hour, or roughly 8760 kilograms per hectare per year. By contrast, 100 head of cattle produce about 5400 kg/ha of methane a year.
In other words, high country grazing is easily methane-neutral and may even offset cow-methane from other parts of the landscape,” said Professor Mark Adams, Dean of Sydney University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
Sustainable Livestock Husbandry
The vast majority of Africa, Australia, North America and the Middle East cannot produce grains and vegetables on a large scale sustainably. They can produce lamb, beef, goat, milk etc sustainably. The evidence against meat from a health perspective is a whole other topic that I won’t get in to right now but perhaps I will just ask you to read “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon”.
The decision to “rest” environments that are grassland ecologies causes die out of many grass species and then leads to desertification. When adopt the grazing animal as a tool and make its movements mimic that of savannah or prairie animals who would be on the move, constantly migrating and avoiding predators, we facilitate one of the most important soil building and preservation events known on land.
Grazing Requirements for Holistic Management
The grazing part of Holistic Management involves intensely grazing a section of pasture followed by a rest period to allow the grass to grow back. Animals remain on the sectioned paddock for as little as twelve hours and up to three days and then are rotated to a previously rested paddock. The timing of the moves is based on the direct observation of the animals and grass, not a time schedule. Minimums of eight different paddocks are used.
Allan Savory, originally a biologist, conservationist and ecologist, discovered this pattern of grazing through a keen observation of the natural patterns in time, space and relationships between large herbivores and predators in the African savannahs. In this way, grazing, managed properly can sequester more carbon than any other land based activity.
We could do all of this and then not eat the animals, but we would still have to cull them and then we wouldn’t be producing any food for humanity in the process.
Sound Holistic Decision Making
The best book on the subject is “Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield”. One of the books that changed my life and made me change my vegetarian eating habits! Not just about grazing, but it is also about sound holistic decision making for a business, family or community and has been set up as a framework for decisions for your venture. Addressing more than just the environment, it includes a way to make good decisions in relation to your finances, your social life, your community and beyond. You can apply it to any business and help achieve a holistic, sustainable context for all employees.
Context is Key
Each person’s context, skills and culture will offer up ways to become environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. My own context has allowed me to move towards a much more realistic goal through Holistic Management based on my skills, capital and general context. After much hard work planting trees, vegetable gardening and even Permaculture earthworks for water retention and water holding supply my land was still deteriorating before my eyes so I started using Holistic Management and it completely transformed the land within two seasons.
The space between my swales, trees, gardens and dams was still grass/herb paddock in dryland Australia. The grass would grow for a short period of time, die and then the soil would dry up, killing all the microbial life in it. When I started using a grazing plan my soil remained full of life throughout the dry season and the carbon and water holding capacity increased dramatically, almost like the cows were spreading compost for me without me doing any back breaking labour or starting a dirty fossil fuel loaded tractor.
Loss of grassland ecological management is leading the vast majority of earth to desertification that then leads to climate change, drought, floods, famine and world wide poverty. Holistic Management doesn’t have all the answers but it is a huge part of the solution to the problems of the world and deserves to be a part of any countries policies and education.
Holistic Management and Self-Sufficiency
Four acres of pasture was not going to pay my bills and Holistic Management helped me make better financial decisions towards developing my land. It was no good to keep pouring money in to developing my land if I couldn’t get cash flow and surplus from my land in the first season. This is where I made the decision to set up contracts on unused land around town so I could increase my flock of sheep and make enough money to continue my good work on the land. This of course, had the double effect of sequestering more carbon and healing dried up old pastures that were set stocked or rested and losing fertility.
My Holistic context (See Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield, for details on how to get a Holistic Context for yourself) has allowed me to progressively move towards a life that I want to live. Addressing the social, environmental, financial and contextual idiosyncrasies of my particular life and skills. Without this, in my opinion, other forays into sustainable concepts can get a bit lost and confusing.